“I love music and love a good audience and still have to make a living,” Watson said. “Why would I quit?”
Musician Sam Bush, who has performed at every Merlefest, began touring with Doc and Merle Watson in 1974, occasionally substituting for Merle when he couldn’t travel.
“I would sit next to Doc, and I would be influenced by his incredible timing and taste,” Bush said after Watson’s recent surgery. “He seems to always know what notes to play. They’re always the perfect notes. He helped me learn the space between the notes (are) as valuable as the ones you play.”
Bush said he was also intimidated when he began playing with the man he calls “the godfather of all flatpickers.”
“But Doc puts you at ease about that kind of stuff,” Bush said. “I never met a more generous kind of musician. He is more about the musical communication than showing off with hot licks.”
His blindness didn’t hold him back musically or at home.
Joe Newberry, a musician and spokesman for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, remembered once when his wife called the Watson home. Rosa Lee Watson said her husband was on the roof, replacing shingles. His daughter Nancy Watson said her father built the family’s utility shed.
Guitarist Pete Huttlinger of Nashville, Tenn., said Doc Watson made every song his own, regardless of its age. “He’s one of those lucky guys,” said Huttlinger, who studied Watson’s methods when he first picked up a guitar. “When he plays something, he puts his stamp on it — it’s Doc Watson.”
He changed folk music forever by adapting fiddle tunes to guitar at amazing tempos, Huttlinger said. “And people all over the place were trying to figure out how to do this,” he said. “But Doc, he set the bar for everyone. He said, ‘This is how it goes.’ And people have been trying for years to match that.
“He took it (the guitar) out of the background and brought it up front as a melody instrument. We’re no longer at the back of the class. He gave the front to us.”
Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, said recently that Watson took southern Appalachian forms of music such as balladry, old-time string music and bluegrass, and made them accessible.
“He takes old music and puts his own creativity on it,” Martin said. “It retained its core, yet it felt relevant to people today.”
Said Bush: “I don’t think anyone personifies what we call Americana more than Doc Watson.”
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said in a statement Tuesday evening that Watson will be missed.
“Over his long and brilliant career, Doc Watson traveled the world playing the music he loved, but his heart never strayed far from his home in Deep Gap, N.C.,” Perdue said. “Our state was fortunate to have such a worldwide ambassador of North Carolina’s culture and heritage.”
In 2011, a life-size statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C., at the spot where Watson had played decades earlier for tips to support his family, according to the Folklore statement. At Watson’s request the inscription read, “Just One of the People.”